California Just Made Climate Change History. How Did it Happen?

August 26, 2016
Image of California's Capitol BuildingPhoto: Henri Sivonen/CC BY (Flickr)
Jason Barbose
Senior Policy Manager (Western States)

The day before yesterday I sat in the gallery of the California Senate and saw something that just a few weeks ago I wasn’t expecting: Senators casting the final vote on an historic set of bills—Senate Bill 32 (Pavley) and Assembly Bill 197 (E. Garcia)—that reaffirm the state’s commitment to addressing climate change through 2030. After the vote was over, my colleagues and I shared hugs, smiles, and tears as the weight of the accomplishment washed over us. It was a great day.

There will be a time for a more thorough examination of how we achieved this victory, but here is my quick take of what just happened.

A referendum on California’s climate change policies

Followers of California climate change policy know that ten years ago, the state adopted a first-in-the-nation law to comprehensively tackle global warming by mandating a statewide reduction in heat-trapping pollution. That law, AB 32, requires that by 2020 statewide emissions be reduced to the equivalent of emissions in 1990. Fast forward to 2016, and we see that this policy has been an overwhelming success.

Success aside, 2020 is fast approaching. So last year Governor Jerry Brown issued an Executive Order that established 2030 climate targets. However, the Governor’s action does not have the same weight or force of law as a legislative requirement. In addition, most observers recognized that a commitment of this significance ought to have the blessing of California’s legislature, and legislators rightly wanted to have their say.

Enter SB 32 and AB 197. SB 32 is simultaneously simple and sweeping. The bill codifies Governor Brown’s executive order by requiring heat-trapping emissions to be reduced to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Meanwhile, AB 197 takes steps to refine California’s climate change programs in two ways: it increases legislative oversight over and transparency to the state’s climate change programs and it emphasizes the state’s commitment to ensuring these policies help communities most impacted by climate change and air pollution. The two measures were double-joined, which meant that if one bill failed to pass the other could not go into effect.

Together these two bills became a referendum on California’s existing climate change programs. Passage would cement California’s commitment to leading the fight against global warming, while failure would have sent the message that California’s political leaders were divided on the issue.

A come-from-behind victory

In early August the conventional wisdom was that these bills were doomed to fail in 2016. Most people thought that the oil industry was too strong of a political opponent, and that a majority of legislators lacked the urgency to act. But, you just never know… So UCS, along with numerous other dedicated advocates, simply kept working. Over the last month we collectively turned up the heat and showed how much support there is for seriously addressing climate change in California.

Legislators heard from a diverse set of stakeholders who care deeply about the risks of global warming and the rewards of a clean energy economy. This included clean energy businesses, social justice advocates, environmentalists, labor leaders, faith-based organizations, public health advocates, consumer groups, and, yes, scientists. And, slowly, momentum started to build.

Legislators also saw that the voting public is hungry for meaningful action to address global warming. In late July there had been a Public Policy Institute of California poll showing that more than two-thirds of Californians support setting strong climate reduction goals for 2030. Tapping into this groundswell of support, UCS helped more than 4,000 Californians contact their legislators in the last month in support of SB 32 and AB 197, with other organizations doing the same. And the momentum kept building.

Soon major newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, Fresno Bee, and San Francisco Chronicle, weighed in as well to urge legislative action this year. Our coalition of supporters kept meeting with legislators. Constituents kept emailing and phoning in. And the momentum built even more.

While there is no easy answer to what proved to be the difference-maker in this campaign, it is undeniable that this victory would have been impossible without the tremendous leadership of Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León, Assembly Member Eduardo Garcia, and Senator Fran Pavley. Together, along with other key lawmakers, they helped convince their colleagues that this was an important vote that ought to occur this year.

And I’m so glad they did. Thanks to the collective work of so many, California’s commitment to addressing climate change is stronger than ever. We have much work ahead of us to successfully deliver on these commitments in a way that protects our climate while also addressing the needs of Californians, who deserve greater investment in economic opportunities and a cleaner environment.

But for a few more days we will simply say, hip-hip hooray!